Confront Unbridled Religious Zealotry Now

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Once again I feel impelled to express anger, frustration and pain concerning the primitive behavior displayed by our religious zealots and their frenetic efforts to reject modernism. But more worrisome are their efforts to impose their stringent standards of observance on all Israelis which has created so much fear and loathing of religion amongst the people that it could culminate with a fracturing of Israeli society and distortion of Jewish identity.

At all times there were individual rabbis and groups who interpreted Halacha – Jewish law – with extreme rigor. Their right to practice their individual religious lifestyle as they saw fit was always respected.

Regrettably, our dysfunctional political system has enabled zealots to hijack the state religious institutions which had formerly been administered by moderate religious Zionists. They transformed the Chief Rabbinate, which they previously held in utter contempt, into puppets exploited to impose haredi standards on the entire nation.

Their gross insensitivity, lack of compassion and the excessive stringency employed in relation to the highly complex issues associated with marriage and conversion is having catastrophic national repercussions and encouraging increasing numbers of Israelis to bypass the rabbinate by marrying in civil ceremonies in Cyprus and elsewhere. For example, they demand documentary proof testifying to Jewish ancestry dating back three generations – an impossibility for many offspring from Holocaust survivors and Jews from the former Soviet Union. They even resorted to an unprecedented halachic technique of retroactively nullifying conversions.

The Chief Rabbinate even sought to deny Tzohar, the association of moderate national religious rabbis, from conducting marriages. Fortunately they have failed and Tzohar have now reasserted their influence in regard to authorizing marriage.

In addition, the haredi establishment refuses to accept halachic innovations previously introduced to accommodate the requirements of a Jewish homeland. It rejects the halachic initiative, heter mechirah, sanctioned by the renowned former Chief Rabbi Kook at the beginning of the century, to avert destitution of farmers when the land was required to remain fallow during the shmita (sabbatical year).

The rabbis who nurtured us during our youth in a religious Zionist environment were no less pious than their counterparts today, yet they were not obsessed with gender separation and “modesty”. They never imposed gender separated youth groups or insisted that it was sinful to listen to women singing.

The prohibitions in this area are constantly expanding. In addition to barring mixed choirs, in Jerusalem this even led to efforts to ban advertising billboards featuring a woman’s face or body. In their perverted version of “modesty”, some extremists even seek to pressure religious women to adopt what can only be described as Taliban dress code.

Not to mention the brouhaha over mixed seating in buses, despite the fact that even Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest ultra-Orthodox halachic authorities of the 20th century, had not only ruled that this posed no problem, but was highly critical of an individual becoming sexually aroused by merely sitting next to a woman. This week, even Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Metzger felt obliged to distance himself from this campaign.

Some of these trends have infiltrated into the national religious community, previously renowned for its moderation, serving as a bridge spanning all sectors of society and promoting Judaism to non-observant Israelis by example rather than by coercion.

The genesis of this worrying trend originated with the recruitment of haredim as teachers in the religious Zionist educational system. This led to the emergence of a new generation of educators, including rabbis, who retained their national ideals but having been educated exclusively in Yeshivot and lacking secular tertiary education, adopted the haredi rejection of worldly knowledge.

This absence of a broader education combined with an almost messianic obsession with the sanctity of the land rather than wider religious social values, created a brand of religious nationalism which became alienated from the people.

It led to some rabbis insinuating that conflicts between democracy and Halacha are inevitable and even encouraging religious soldiers to reject orders deemed to be inconsistent with religious law.

Whilst clumsily mishandled by the IDF, the recent call from some rabbis for religious soldiers to boycott army ceremonies in which women sing is unprecedented. This concept of Kol Isha was promulgated at a time when female singers were associated with promiscuity and was only observed by a small minority within the Orthodox framework. Surely, the few soldiers wishing to observe this could have resolved the problem by simply wearing earplugs. The madness is further exacerbated by Rabbi Levanon of Elon Moreh, allegedly recommending that soldiers choose death before complying with an order to hear women sing.

More outrageously, students from a religious pre military academy (Eli) were recently forbidden by their rabbi (Elie Sadan) to attend a lecture in the Knesset because it was being presented by a woman.

Chief Rabbi Goren and other former chief rabbis never objected to such activity nor absented themselves from events in which women participated. Yet, would anyone dare suggest that former chief rabbis, who would never conceivably endorse such stringent rulings, were any less pious or learned than the current incumbents? Was Chief Rabbi Herzog or Chief Rabbi Goren religiously inferior to our current Chief Rabbi Metzger?

However, today many rabbis who privately describe extremist halachic interpretations as abhorrent and harmful, feel intimidated and lack the courage to raise their voices in protest. Others mistakenly believe that a split in religious ranks would be more damaging than confronting the zealots.

The time has come for us to demand that mainstream rabbis speak up and publicly promote what Maimonides described as the “shvil hazahav” – the golden path of moderation.

The highly respected Tzohar rabbis, if unable to function within the existing rabbinical framework, must cease appeasing the zealots and muster the courage to break away and set up a totally independent Bet Din to deal with issues of marriage and conversion in a contemporary halachic manner consistent with the requirements of the nation.

Although prospects for success are remote, the national interest demands that the Knesset and political parties, comprised overwhelmingly of secular and moderate religious representatives, should suspend their differences in order to introduce changes to break the nexus which has enabled haredim to apply excessive leverage to impose their standards on the entire nation.

Ultra-orthodox children, like their counterparts in the diaspora, must receive an education which will enable them to earn a livelihood and not be destined to remain permanently dependent on state welfare. Their schools should be denied funding unless they provide core subjects such as mathematics, science and language into their curricula. Like other citizens, they too must contribute toward citizenship and serve in the Army or at least undertake some form of national service.

The current religious establishment is behaving in a scandalous manner and alienating Israelis and Diaspora Jews from Judaism. As a religious Jew who once admired the Chief Rabbinate as the jewel in the crown of religious Zionism, it pains me to state that like many Israelis, I would celebrate the dissolution of this institution as currently constituted.

We must strive for a compassionate Zionist rabbinate that is equally well-versed in worldly matters as with sacred texts and responsive to the needs of the entire nation. Otherwise, the majority of Israelis who are today inclined towards maintaining Jewish traditions will become so alienated that they are likely to  ultimately demand a complete separation of religion and state.

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This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom


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